Book Club: 4,000 Weeks

SOLO 171 | Time Management


Peter McGraw welcomes Laura Grant and Amy Gahran into the Solo Studio for the second Solo book club. They discuss Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Listen to Episode #171 here


Book Club: 4,000 Weeks

Welcome back, Amy Gahran and Laura Grant.

Thanks. I’m excited about this one.

You two have been excellent guests for many of my most popular and entertaining episodes, including a Book Club episode where we read and dissected the book Minimizing Marriage. I hosted the Book Club because that author Elizabeth Brake blew me off. We’re back with another book because another author blew me off.

SOLO 171 | Time Management
Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law (Studies in Feminist Philosophy)

We are the backup for the blew offs. How do you feel about that?

I feel pretty good about it.

I don’t think you’re the backups because this is a better format by which to discuss a book and learn about it than talking to the author. You’re already getting the author in the book, then you get the author plus the author talking. It’s too much author.

That’s interesting coming from two authors. I’m glad you feel that way.

The book is called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Why this title?

Four thousand weeks is the approximate lifespan of a human. We hope that’s our lifespan. It could end at any point. That is a point that Oliver Burkeman, the author likes to make over and over. One theme that recurs is accepting your finite life, finitude and the limitations that come with that, embracing it and letting that free you from the unrealistic expectations of our modern society that you will do everything. If you aren’t doing everything, it’s because you’re lazy, disorganized or there’s something wrong with you. Four thousand weeks is for mortals. We will all die soon. We’re going to have to face that to be the best versions of ourselves.

That’s a great summary of the premise of the book and the format of the book. First of all, Oliver Burkeman was for a while was syndicated. He was a columnist. He wrote mostly about productivity issues for a while. The format of this book is a collection of essays. It doesn’t have the throughline of a narrative of a book that is supposed to be a book. This felt like a bunch of essays that got stitched together pretty well. He’s a good writer. He makes good points. He has good research to back it up. It’s a very countrified book. You can read it in pieces. You don’t have to sit down and necessarily plow through the whole thing.

What ends up happening a lot with books is they have often puffed up PowerPoint presentations.

There’s a bit of that here.

That’s not a critique. The book is very well-written and accessible. As far as a beautiful puffed-up PowerPoint presentation, this is about as good as it gets.

It’s digestible. It’s good work from the writer and also good work to the editors, whoever they were on this editing, a collection of essays is a hard job. Whomever the editor was on this did a good job.

This matters a lot because when I re-listened to our last book club, we spent the first twenty minutes pooping on the writing of that book. Folks know you can read this book and enjoy it.

It’s worth reading.

It’s a kind of book that you probably want to revisit every few years as like, “That’s a good reminder every 156 weeks.”

Especially for those of us who both loved this book and felt personally attacked by this book. It was for me. You’re given a new piece of information that is contrary to the way that you live and think. You are like, “That is good information. I know that I will resist implementing that because it’s such a change from my norm but I want to.” Revisiting is probably a good idea for me.

Why is that?

This book talks about how American people in this time have been conditioned over many generations to be productivity machines. We judge our self-worth through that lens. I do this very much in my life. It’s inviting us to depart from that. It’s pointing out how that stresses us out, makes us anxious, keeps us from enjoying our lives and accomplishing the things that are important to us and how it ruins things like leisure, how we are not leisurely creatures anymore, where even our free time has to be monetized or it has to be building up to some kind of future good.

I can’t just read a book. I have to read some non-fiction about climate change so I can make a difference or I can’t watch some TV. I need to like, “I’m going to watch TV in Spanish to work on my Spanish skills. I can’t go for a walk. I have to train for a 10K.” The quote that I liked was, “The manner in which most of us were raised is to prioritize future benefits over current enjoyments.” That’s so neat. I pride myself on that. That’s a thing. You were breaded by a spreadsheet by capitalist society to be a unit of production. You’ve been trained to think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This notion of leisure is what we should talk a little more deeply about when we get into this. I started to recognize that it was a problem with the nature of my work and my ambitions, where I felt like when I wasn’t working, I was falling behind.

We all feel that way.

I used to feel that way. I’ve gotten a lot better about it. In my 20s and 30s, I was a complete workaholic. I would work all the time. I drove myself to complete exhaustion several times.

What would you add to Laura’s initial reaction?

One thing that struck me about this book is how it starts with a very interesting emphasis that how we perceive time affects our emotions about how we move through time, how we make choices and what we think matters. He makes some arguments about how before clocks were invented that people moved very differently through time. With all that kind of stuff, I don’t know. It’s speculative. I’m very skeptical about evolutionary psychology and stuff like that. You don’t know because we can’t go back and ask them.

There is something because you can find these tribes that don’t play by the rules.

Those tribes exist in this era. What struck me though was the connections between talking about different perceptions at the time to works of fiction that I love. Did either of you see the movie Arrival with Amy Adams that came out several years ago?

I did.

It’s where learning the language of an alien species changed somebody’s perception of time. I thought that was fascinating. Also movies like Slaughterhouse-Five, a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The lead character in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, became unstuck in time. He drifted around through his very interesting life at random moments. He had this Forrest Gump attitude about him where he was very placid and content in a lot of ways despite dealing with some crazy and sometimes horrific situations.

A lot of that was because I can’t control where I’m going to be when or where. As good as it gets, another Jack Nicholson film About Schmidt dealt with people grappling with being mortal. “What am I doing with my life?” I was surprised by how much this had emotional overtones for me because of my attachment to those works of fiction. It made me remember how much experiencing those works of fiction for the first time made me sit down and feel time.

I’m going to be 57 in August 2023. It’s like, “I’ve worked through a bunch of those 4,000 weeks.” Things matter differently to me in my 50s than they did when I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s. I have a cabin that I’ve been going to every summer up in the mountains for twenty-something years. That’s what I do. I don’t feel like I need this great travel adventure to go somewhere to unwind. It’s a 30-minute drive away from me. I’m good with that.

This book probably hits home much more for the middle-aged crowd than the twenty-something crowd for that experience.

They’re the ones with the money to buy the books.

Also some of it, you’ve crossed off a bunch of those weeks. The sun’s not rising for me. It’s setting. That’s straight math. No matter how good I take care of myself, there are hundreds of best cases. That means I’m on the other side. There’s no way I’m less than halfway and chances are probably more like 2/3 of the way when you start thinking about it.

It’s easier to believe it when you are slightly older because you’ve seen the pattern not pan out over and over, “I’m going to work harder and do more.” Certainly, something good will come from that. The reward is more work, stress or anxiety or less time or doing the things you want to do. All of a sudden, you’ve blinked and busted your ass for so many years. Maybe you’re in a good place but it’s always like, “I have to keep doing that. To get to the next thing, I have to do that even more,” and then you’re like, “Haven’t I been doing this for decades?”

This notion of time is interesting. I’ve been writing and thinking a little bit about it. Time is a social construction. There are certain elements of our life that are repeatable like the sun rising and setting but the notion of hours, minutes, seconds, months, days, years, the work week, Monday through Friday versus Saturday, Sunday and so on.

Ultimately, time and space aren’t separate.

I got high one night and was trying to fix my anxiety by reading Einstein. I’ll tell you why it was helpful. I don’t want to go too far out on this but for people who are not familiar with this, the argument is that the future has already happened. We just haven’t experienced it yet. There’s part of me going, “Why am I worrying about this stuff that has already happened?” In a very philosophical sense, it’s there.

Nonetheless, regardless of your feelings about this invention, we all will die. That is an overarching theme in this book. The second one is the typical approach, especially among the achieving class to which the three of us belong. Make the most of your time that fits as many things in as possible and be as efficient as possible. He argues that this is a mistaken approach. There are two types of people in the world. There are people who do too much. This book resonates. There are folks that don’t have this problem. They have other problems. They might need to press down on the gas a little bit more. Some of us may need to release from the gas a little bit.

There’s something you’re leaving out of there.

What’s that?

The perspective that people either do too much or they’re slacking in some way is to some extent a perspective of privilege. Most people on this planet are scrambling to stay alive. If you are poor, disabled and significantly impressed in some way, how you use your time is, “What do I need to do to stay alive and keep my family fed?” Let’s not forget that because that is most of humanity still.

I don’t disagree but you spend some time on social media.

Who’s on social media? You have access to the internet.

Oliver Burkeman says not to do that.

I’m spending much less time there.

I say that because, on the way over here, I was listening to a podcast about the nature of poverty and how poverty affects people. The big issue with poverty is the bandwidth it eats up. You don’t have a moment to think of anything if you lost your job or got an eviction notice. I know a lot of people out there might be reading like, “You say that. I’m working minimum wage. I got no chance to think about it.” They’re probably not even listening to any podcasts but it’s important to remember that is a large part of humanity.

Most people are struggling to make their way.

Something we talk about a lot and you talk about on this show is how social norms affect people. Here you have an example of there are people who do too much and then people who don’t struggle with that whom American society views negatively, who maybe have achieved something or realized something that we are struggling to achieve and realize, which is slow down, enjoy and smell the roses. With a capital W, society would look down on that as well. “You’re sitting around. What are you doing with your life? What do you have to show for yourself?” Maybe the answer is happiness.

I will clarify this. There are a group of people who want certain things they want to achieve but they’re not doing the work. That’s what I want to point out.

What I liked about this book Is that it pointed out, “You have all these great things that you’re going to achieve. You’re not going to get around it, probably most of them. You have to strategically figure out what are you going to bail on.”

Why does the typical time management book fail the average time management book reader?

They’re trying to give us tools to achieve the impossible. They’re saying, “Here’s another tool for your toolbox to do more with the limited amount of time you have,” instead, this book is offering up a different perspective that’s saying, “Maximizing your time is scaling back.” I loved the term strategic underachievement.

That was a good one that I took away from the book and said, “It’s not a question of if I have the better time management app or better sleep schedule or if I exercise or do brain training, then I can fit more in. I can fit maybe all of the things I want to do into the time I have.” That’s never going to happen. Even if you get better and fit more in, that’s a trap and you will find more things that you want to fit in. He talks about that a lot.

It’s like the advertising paradox where it’s like, “Buy this thing and find new and improved ways to feel inadequate.”

He said, “When the dishwasher was invented, you’d think people would have more leisure time but instead the standards of cleanliness rose so much that it ate up all that extra bandwidth.”

Work expands to fill the available time.

That’s called Parkinson’s Law.

I like this term, “We are a limited amount of time,” then he has this other line where he says, “You are paying with your life.” I remember reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done in my late twenties when I was a graduate student. That’s a moment in time when you have to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. You have a five-year window. Your trajectory is determined largely by that period. I am very good at learning the rules and executing them. At that moment, this was a good roadmap for how you do scheduling, to-do list and the next thing.

There was very useful beneficial advice in that book and then a bunch of other books that are like that, which allowed me to be more efficient. That served me quite well during that time. It seems less valuable having climbed the academic mountaintop, for example, and being much more aware of when I choose to do X, it comes at a cost, which is I’m paying with my time and that time is limited. It’s more limited now than it was many years ago. He makes this case for prioritization and it throws out efficiency for the reasons that you said, Laura.

You are a very scheduled-oriented, get-it-done and orderly fashion person. I am relatively chaotic compared to you. I also get a lot done and I always have but I’ve been driven mainly by three things, deadlines, the need that something is important like somebody needs help or something like that and bursts of creative energy where it’s like all of a sudden, I’m in the flow with that. “This is going to keep going. This is good.” It validated the way that I approach things. I haven’t been very strategic about what I bailed on. There are things I bailed on that I wish I hadn’t done like that where sometimes I did a crappy job on things that I shouldn’t have.

I hate most productivity books because all it is like, “You’re telling me to be orderly, responsible and organized. I get crap done but I’m not going to do that bad system.” The most I do is have a crazy to-do list but it works for me because I can say, “These fifteen things are not going to happen.” I ditch them. I feel okay about that but I put things on there so that I don’t forget to think about them.

It sounds like we’re already priority planning in a sense. You were already doing what he’s trying to shift people to do.

I wish I had thought about retirement planning more in my 20s and 30s but I’ll figure it out. Most productivity books offer you tools and this one does too. Amy talked about a few of them. Oliver Burkeman does offer up having a fixed volume approach. In the professional world, we do agile with scrum and con bond tools. A fixed-volume approach to productivity is important. We only take on a few things at a time because trying to spread ourselves too thin or multitasking too much is not effective.

There’s another term he used instead of Fear Of Missing Out or FOMO, which is something I suffer from a lot of the time. He said, “A delight in missing out to say the things I’m choosing to do are so much more meaningful because of all the myriad things I’m not going to do.” The fact that the word priority is by its very nature a singular term and yet we’ve morphed it into like, “What are your top priorities,” doesn’t even make sense. Priority is supposed to be singular.

You’re supposed to only have one at a time. Having a fixed-volume approach is a good one for deciding in advance what you’re going to fail at and making peace with the fact that you’re going to fail at some things. You’re going to let some people down. That’s the nature of humanity, being a time-finite person on this mortal coil. Those are different ways of looking at these productivity issues and focusing on achievement, not the remaining work to do. You talked about a to-do list. He said to keep a done list.

As I check them off in the app, I can go back and see what was checked off.

There are many productivity apps. You keep filtering out all the things you’ve accomplished. All you ever look at are what’s left to do. You never get to celebrate all the achievements you’ve had. He’s trying to get us to reframe that and say, “Look how much I did.”

I’d like what he said at one point that some days are like, “I got out of bed and brushed my teeth.” That’s a big achievement because we are not always functioning at 100%.

It’s fun to know the other ways that people work. One of the nice things about it is that not even work exist but there are multiple ways to be successful in living your life. First of all, people have different priorities. Some people are focused on achievement and others are focused on meaning and then other people are focused on pursuing flow for the sake of flow, even if it doesn’t create anything that’s shared with the world. There are some people who are in pursuit of leisure, developing taste and enjoying the aesthetics of this wonderful world that we’re in. The trouble is when you’re trying to do all of those things.

You mentioned something in there, finding meaning. That’s one bone I have to pick with this book.

It’s the only reason I was super eager to talk to Oliver. Let’s get into it because the readers s are like, “What is it?” Burkeman makes this argument that you should be saying no to things that you don’t want to do but you should also say no to things that you don’t want to do that much.

SOLO 171 | Time Management
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

You should also say no to things you want to do. That’s the hard part here.

To do the things that you really want to do.

That’s one of the takeaways. I see the irony that I’m reading a book about doing less and I’m like, “I’m going to do something as a result of reading this book.” I made a list of like, “Here are things that I wanted to do but I’m okay with not doing. Here’s a list of things that I need to get okay with not doing because I want to do these things. I don’t have time to do them but I’ve been banging my head against it.” That left me with a list of things would not be okay giving up. That was a much shorter list and more manageable.

One of the things I talk a lot about in the show is there is no one remarkable life. There are remarkable lives. One of the joyous things is if you’re lucky, you get to choose your life. You get to choose whether you want to pursue achievement, meaning, flow or positive emotions. You get to choose whether you want to do this solo, with a partner or with partners.

If you’re lucky, you get to have a lot of say over these things, especially if you’re willing to break the rules and deviate from what the world is telling you how you’re supposed to behave. Where Burkeman oversteps is he starts to prescribe a particular world that you should pursue given all of this free time that you’re going to have now that you’re prioritizing.

Relationship escalator. He says in a nutshell and you come away with the message, “If you’re not riding the relationship escalator, your life is meaningless.” I got a bone to pick with that.

It happens to be the case that he’s a new father as this book is being written. He is enjoying his fatherhood. He’s finding it to be of great meaning, quite valuable and feels very comfortable urging the reader to consider that. It’s not a coincidence that you two were invited back to book club for this book given this topic.

I’m looking at my copy of the book and one thing it says, on page 31 of the print edition is, “The more individual sovereignty you achieve over your time, the lonelier you get.” I formally rode the relationship escalator to the top. I was married, cohabiting, merged finances and at least trying to be monogamous for a while there. I was never lonely in my life when I was trying to do all that. That was a very isolating condition for me. I embraced my solo hood and got my feet under me that way. First of all, I wasn’t lonely. Second of all, I got more done. Third of all, I felt like my life had more meaning.

Every relationship has issues. There were issues in my marriage. I’ve got a much better relationship with my former spouses. There is something to what he says about the value of being in the community and sinking up with the community. There’s a lot to be said for being on a compatible schedule with other people. That’s important. This idea that then you have to have this certain kind of relationship and it has to work this certain kind of way and crank out a couple of kids, my life would have felt meaningless had I done that for much longer.

The thing about that particular prescription that bothers me is that it fails to understand the many ways that people contribute to making the world a better place. Having children for some people mathematically holds you back from making the world a better place in other ways. There’s some evidence of this that, for example, single scientists are more productive. First of all, no one has any obligation to create meaning in the world. You can if you want. You don’t owe the world doing stuff to make the world a better place. In general, you should strive to not make the world a worse place.

You get to choose these things. If you decide to pursue meaning for your entire life or some section of your life, you can do that by creating a family if you want but I don’t see that as morally superior to trying to eradicate disease, for example, trying to help with climate change, whatever the battle that you decide to fight or whatever contributions that you desire to make. Some of which are easier to succeed when you are not riding the relationship escalator.

Sorry, Oliver Burkeman but you’re wrong on that. Speaking from my experience and of many other people I care about, it is possible depending on the people and the circumstances involved, to have more to give to people you care about, communities you care about, to issues and causes you care about to have a positive impact on society and the world by not getting married and having kids. He’s got a monogamous bias in there too. He referred to not choosing a relationship, not settling down into an as-in-one relationship as frittering away your energy, attention and interest, distracting yourself and not getting the value of committing. Say that to my face.

I’ve built up this skill of ignoring that messaging in a society so much that when I read it, the takeaway for me was the power of making a decision instead of worrying about all possible decisions. He used getting married as an unfortunate example. Pick someone and commit to them, in his simplified relationship style here, so that you can then move forward and decide to live within that new space and commit to that as opposed to worrying about, “What if there’s someone out there who’s better than the person here in front of me that I love?” If I replace that with almost anything other than people, I like that argument. Swirling in analysis paralysis and trying to make decisions does not serve us, as well as committing to a path, doing it and then moving forward.

In this book, he phrased it in the context of personal relationships, especially intimate relationships. Oliver, I love you. Good writing but that’s crap.

You’re being generous, Laura. I listened to the book, which I rarely ever do. I was driving back from my sabbatical in Los Angeles back to Colorado to restart my life as an academic. It was perfect timing to get this message because academia is a world where it demands efficiency because there are too many things to do and not enough time.

It helps me create some priorities. He reads his book. He has a wonderful British accent. He was telling this to me in a way that I was like, “Hold on. I was into this up into this moment.” This does not diminish the message for me. It wouldn’t stop me from suggesting the book but I’m glad that it came up because I was eager to point out that it’s your life.

You’re going to lose it at some point around 4,000 weeks on average. Within the constraints of the world that you live in, you have a set of choices to make about what you want to prioritize and what you want to do. It is fine for people to ride the escalator. I want you to choose it. I don’t want you to default into it and consider what are the opportunity costs and what are the other priorities that you could have if you decided to forgo that.

One thing you didn’t talk about enough here was fallback capabilities. What if you are committed to a certain career or a marriage or something unexpected, huge and terrible happens? You get divorced. Your child dies. You get in a horrible car accident and can’t do the work you were doing anymore. You suddenly need to take responsibility for a relative or friend who is in dire circumstances. Life throws you these curve balls. If we have learned anything from the last many years, life throws you curve balls.

I don’t think this book emphasizes enough the skills for resilience even as a chapter titled, Staying On The Bus, keep doing what you commit to doing. If you do that without cultivating an awareness of what will you do if some big part of your life goes sideways, you are going to get blindsided by this. I would read the book with awareness. That kind of resilience is important.

That’s an interesting idea, not one that I considered. How does someone do that? How does someone start considering this worst-case planning?

One thing I counsel people with often in various discussion groups and with people I meet is to have a good chunk of life experience being solo. Not depending on intimate partners or family to the extent that you are able to. Not everybody has that ability but not just diving into some kind of relationship and assuming that’s always going to be part of your life and take care of you.

When you have at least a few years of experience of being on your own and not viewing that as a deficient state, take that time to get under you and never lose that capacity. You’ll say, “I did that in my 20s but I’ve been married for 15 years and I got kids. We own a house together. I couldn’t leave this relationship even though it’s horribly abusive because it would be too hard.”

Never let go of that capability to have your income, find your housing, organize your transportation and have your support network as an individual, not just as part of a particular community, church or whatever you’re part of. Maintain your ability to have those connections and find those resources because if you don’t, you will end up making bad decisions in life and your priorities will be skewed by dependence.

You said two important things there. You talked a lot about self-reliance, which is your ability to manage your life can come and go but feeling the strength there and then the diversity of your support network is important where if you are putting like the relationship escalator tells you to put all of your support on one person. I’m in finance. You don’t do that financially. You diversify that portfolio. It’s the same with people. Are you having professional healthcare providers and friendship, community, faith or family networks? Being aware of them and investing and appreciating them instead of only seeing a narrow view of, “I will always have the people that I have. I can have a one-legged stool.” It doesn’t work.

It’s Adulting 101. It is not only there as a catastrophic fallback but also it makes your life better. You will make better decisions and have better relationships and careers. You’ll probably age better if you never lose the capacity to stand on your feet and the confidence that you can figure stuff out.

I’m developing a talk around this idea. It’s great hearing you two talk about it. The tentative title is What Married People Can Learn From Remarkable Singles and this notion of being able to parent yourself and how empowering it is, even if you let your partner take care of things for you. You ought to be able to nourish yourself. If one partner wants to be in charge of the groceries and cooking, serving meals and so on, that’s fine.

If that partner dies, becomes disabled or divorces you, you should not be like, “I don’t know how to nourish myself,” or support yourself. Even if one partner decides, “I’m going to stay home with the kids and take care of the house,” because of death, disability or divorce, you are going to be able to provide for yourself and those kids. This is good advice, especially for the married crowd. The solos already know how to do this oftentimes. Sometimes you get good at this stuff and then suddenly, you’re like, “I don’t need that. I don’t need someone to solve my problems because I can solve them myself.”

You get criticized for being hyper-independent.

Good relationships have independence within them. It’s going to help your sex life and for people to be kinder to each other and for them to opt-in.

Valuing diversity of interdependence is what makes good friendships or neighbors. This is what makes a functioning democracy. I have a point that I wanted to raise that takes a direct broadside at your tagline for the show. Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to, “Do something remarkable with them. It entails precisely the opposite. Refusing to hold them to an abstract and over-demanding standard of remarkableness against which they can only ever be found wanting and taking them instead on their terms, dropping back down from God-like fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely and often enough marvelously is.”

There goes your tagline but this reminded me of another wonderful piece of fiction, the movie Amadeus, which was largely about exactly this. F. Murray Abraham’s character is the mediocre composer solidarity. One of the climaxes of that movie was his coming to terms with it and appreciating his mediocrity. Remember he was saying, “Mediocrity is everywhere. I am its patron saint. I absolve you.” Sometimes we all need a little absolution from the patron saint of mediocrity because what this book is getting to is you don’t have to be remarkable all the time. You may not even need to be remarkable at all. Good enough is good enough sometimes.

To me, this is about within the person.

I don’t need anybody to remark on it.

My point is this. If you live your life remarkably, you’re going to get remarks but they’re not necessarily going to be positive. That’s part of the reason I chose that particular word. It’s a life worth remarking on but it doesn’t mean that the remarks are going to be uniformly positive. If you’re successful in living the right life for you, chances are you’re going to disappoint other people because you’re not going to ride the escalator or you’re not going to work the way they want you to work. You’re not going to live your leisure life in a way.

You’re not going to have sex with the people they want you to have sex with and so on. That is my rebuttal. I want to ask you about another idea that he has here about this notion of absorption and presence. It’s not just what you do but how you do it. It was a theme that I picked out of the reading. Even this notion of leisure is connected to that but this notion of being very present.

Mindfulness is what it boils down to.

As Americans, we have turned into a sport. He does touch on to say, “I have my meditation app. If I get enough hours, I will achieve enlightenment. I have to dive into that. I feel guilty that I haven’t made enough time or managed my to-do list well enough to have all this time to sit cross-legged.”

What I loved was he brought that point back to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which if you may recall, those of you who read the first Book Club episode, was what I read in cramming the night before my philosophy exam instead of reading philosophy and I still passed. He was talking about presence and how you go and do this thing because you want to be there in the moment for this amazing thing.

He and his son went to Crater Lake in that book. He got there and was like, “It’s a big round lake.” You can’t necessarily summon that on demand. What I have started doing is when I feel that, I was like, “This thing is cool. I’m here.” Pay attention to it because if I try to do something amazing and it’s like, “I’m going to so enjoy this,” I’m going to be too self-conscious about it. It needs to happen. When it happens, it’s okay.

There’s research that suggests that the message in this book works. This is researched by some of my colleagues at CU Boulder, including a well former student who’s moved on. Phil Fernbach, Christina Kan and John Lynch published a paper in the 2015 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. They look at the effectiveness of two different approaches to time management, efficiency and priority planning, which we’ve been talking about. Efficiency is how you fit more into this finite amount of time versus this notion of picking the most important things and working on the most important on your way down and what you get to, you get to and what you don’t get to, you don’t get to in a sense.

You can try to work faster, multitask and try to eliminate distractions. That’s efficiency. I’m a master at these things and it’s incredibly difficult to do even though I’m a master. Priority planning is focusing on the most important tasks. Perhaps delegating and eliminating. They found that priority planning was more effective at improving people’s time management. It helped people accomplish more. They found that people who used priority planning were more likely to complete their goals.

They felt less stressed and they had more free time to the point about when you get efficient, you keep filling your time with more tasks. They also found that people who used priority planning were more likely to be satisfied with their lives. That is because priority planning helps people to focus on things that are most important to them and avoid wasting time on things that are not. There’s behavioral science research that backs up what is largely a philosophical exercise in this book. There was a lot of philosophy in the book.

What is it with that? Why do you keep inflicting philosophy?

One of the things that I liked about it and I can’t remember which philosopher argued was how important finitude is for us to live our lives. The idea is that if you were immortal, it could sap your motivation because you could always go to Crater Lake tomorrow, next year, 1,000 years from now or 1 million years from now. It would remove that kind of motivation impetus to do, make, experience, grow and build.

I’ve been feeling this finitude. Two things are going on in my life. I have a very elderly cat, who is Abi. He is my feline overlord. He will be 21 in July 2023. As a 21-year-old cat, he has health issues and we’ve discovered one more thing, diabetes. He’s going to have to start getting insulin injections. I was seeing him slow down. I’m going to miss him so much, that wonderful little being.

He has brought so much love. Not just in my life but many people that I care about, love this cat. This cat is the best amazing cat ever. I’m dealing with that and at the same time, my mom is old and declining. She has some health issues. I’m flying out because she’s getting some surgery. She’s not going to be around that much longer.

I don’t know if it’s a matter of months or a couple of more years but as I’m reading this book, it’s like I’m looking at these two big impending losses. What I have been sitting down and journaling a lot about is how wonderful my mom and this cat are. I’m trying to focus on that because they have both had good runs. All we can ask for is to have a good long run or at least a good run if it’s not that long.

I’m sure that’s shaped the way you spend your time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When my father was 53, he was dying of cancer. He died at 54. It was a tragic life. Thinking about how I could have been or could be in a similar situation does provide a little bit of clarity especially when it comes to how I want to spend my time, what I want to work on and who I want to spend it with. People who read the blog regularly know I’m a bit of a weirdo. I’m hyper-productive and super-focused. I’m about as sufficient as I can be given my humanity and that has served me well. It’s created a life of personal and professional growth and wonderful experiences. I’m starting to contribute to the world beyond writing boring, esoteric papers and teaching students.

We’re all grateful for that.

To a broader audience, this is the most meaningful work that I’m doing but there’s a little bit of what was the use of working so hard for many years on getting serious about my achievements, academics in particular, if I don’t use the fact that I succeeded to live a better life, try to enjoy myself a little bit more and do the things that I want to do more versus the things that I ought to do. I’m sorry for your anticipated losses.

They both had the best long runs. It’s like, “This is what happens.”

Hopefully, someone will say that about us someday like, “Laura had a great run. I’m going to miss her.”

It’s almost like you’re saying we’re looking back at the early part of your career, all you dedicated to academia, doing what you ought to do in academia and the sacrifices that you made as if that was some waste or a loss.

I don’t have regrets about anything that I did. I do think there is a tendency to rinse and repeat. It gets increasingly difficult to make changes as you get older. This could be the corporate world, the world of academia or the way your family is that they want you to behave in this particular way and you should keep behaving that way, in part because it’s a bit of a flywheel. If you get good at something, you get rewarded for it, get more opportunities and get better at it.

Once that wheel gets spinning, it’s often very hard to stop it. I’m a big fan of this second mountain metaphor which is, you climb the mountain and you’re at the top. You can stay there if you want and you can rinse and repeat. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. However, it is worth considering, “Maybe I should head down and start a new climb.” That’s going to be challenging but there’s going to be growth there. At the very least, it’s a different mountain. It might be a bigger one. It might not. There’s a risk there.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a mountain. It can be a very pleasant hiking trail. One thing that he talked about in this book that I liked is something that he referred to the jargon as Italic hobbies like Rod Stewart building railroad models. When he travels on tour, he booked an extra hotel room so he could have his railroad models. That’s amazing to me. The thing is that you can find that joy and meaning. You don’t have to put the pressure on yourself that it needs to be another mountain.

It’s a solo mountain. My previous guest, Caleb Warren, we have a very fun conversation about asking the question, “Are single people cool?” Caleb did a bunch of humor work with me. He’s the co-creator of the benign violation theory but he’s also done work on coolness. One of the things that Caleb said to me that I cannot get out of my head is, “What is play going to look like for you in the next years?” He essentially urged me to play more and have more fun in part because I feel like I could if I wanted to. All of that was fun to contemplate before this book deal.

In America, we’re anti-fun because hobbies are not cool. Side hustles are cool. As a crafter, I find joy in the creative process so I craft things. I glue popsicle sticks together and then give them as gifts and people say, “This is great. Are you going to sell this? Do you have an Etsy shop yet? Can I buy more of these?” “No. You can’t afford my time.” This takes so long. I do it for the joy of it. Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out in a way that I would want to give to someone and I can throw it away. That’s okay. It was the joy of doing it that was important. We get that so often.

Only doing stuff that you feel like you’re already good at. Being reticent to try something new. I’ve realized that when I was a kid, I used to love to draw, especially charcoal and pastels. I would do it all the time. From the time I was in high school, I stopped because I was on the workaholic train and doing journalism and all that. I got a whole bunch of art supplies. I’m playing around with it. I’m like, “If I have something that looks remotely like anything if I’m trying to do a figurative drawing or something, I made a recognizable object.” I am not going for good, let alone great. I’m going for, “Did I do something?”I think I did okay. Did I make a little progress there or did I have fun doing it? Oil pastels are so much fun.

I’m contemplating a real vacation, which I can’t tell you.

Are you doing it to get the miles?

I have done mileage runs, to get to secure. That one I was traveling a lot. I had a Christmas miracle. I had a friend who was flying to Columbia. I was doing a mileage run on Christmas day. I was flying to LA sitting in the lounge for three and a half hours and then flying back to get my whatever status. My friend Mark, who is like a brother, was like, “What time do you land?” I was like, “I land at 1:20.” He goes, “It’s a Christmas miracle.” He was getting in at 2:00 and he had a two-and-a-half-hour layover. We got to hang out for two hours in the lounge on Christmas together because he was doing a proper vacation and I was doing a mileage run.

I travel a decent amount less than before. When I travel, what I often do is replicate my life here in that other place. I get up, go to a coffee shop, do my writing and work out. I know what I like. I know the beats of my day. It agrees with me. I’m not complaining about it at all but I’m like, “I need a break from the computer.” I’m contemplating doing this trip and not bringing my computer, which has been connected to me since 1997 more or less. That could be a fun experiment. What possibilities does it open up when you wake up and go, “I can do anything I want.”

Something Oliver Burkeman talks about is that might be a little uncomfortable. He says that a lot. I like this one. What we need is a willingness to resist such urges to learn. We need to learn to stay within the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed or not being on top of everything without automatically responding by trying to fit in. “I’m feeling like I’m behind because I took a bath or read a book instead of working. I feel uncomfortable that there’s so much I’m not going to get done. My automatic reaction is to do more.” He’s inviting us to sit with that discomfort, be with it and let it pass so that we can mindfully choose what to do instead of being reactionary and trying to cram more in all the time.

My friend, Jane, who is solo, is amazing. She’s also retired. She bought a 40-foot boat many years ago and rehabbed it on her own. She grew up sailing so she knew how to sail. As they say with boats, it’s the fastest way to turn a billionaire into a millionaire. She often says how difficult sailing is. Whether you have a crew on board or doing it solo, it’s hard. It’s risky. There are things that are very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing with navigation and you don’t know how to maintain the engine. Finding a Marino that you can afford to put on your boat for a few days while you get supplies is difficult stuff.

She’s been injured sailing and she keeps doing it because she likes the sailing life. She likes the feeling of, “I can take my boat and go somewhere.” It’s deeply meaningful to her in a lot of ways. She’s had a very interesting life in a couple of different careers. She doesn’t know if she’s going to do it forever. She’s like, “I’ve been through enough stuff in life that that’ll probably run its course at some point but the difficulty of sailing, the discomfort of it and the risk of it, it’s not a thrill-seeking thing. It’s just part of how it works.” This difficulty and discomfort are part of how everything works. You got to talk to Jane.

Any other big takeaway that we haven’t discussed yet? We are a little bit critical of the book.

He made a lot of good points.

It’s a big idea.

I do think there is more to be said for a general audience about how people perceive and experience time and how that affects who we are individually and together.

If you haven’t read the episode with Kinneret Lahad on waiting, she is a sociologist and does research on the sociology of time. One of the things that we discuss at length is with regard to women and this idea of a biological clock and the waiting. We have tackled the issue of time a little bit in a previous episode. It’s a fascinating conversation.

One thing that is useful, even if you don’t care anything for the philosophy of Buddhism or if a Zen center is available to you, go to a Zen session where it involves some walking meditation. Typically, the people silently walk in a circle around the room. It is amazing that when you do that long enough, things fall away. It can be a wonderful experience. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience at first and then something clicks. There’s something to be said about those experiences of intentionally changing how you deal with time and attention with other people who are doing it at the same time. If you’ve only been doing it by yourself, mix it up a little and try some of it as a shared experience. Don’t try too hard though.

It hit home for me so hard and this particular point in my life. I thought it was a struggle between productivity and effectivity, which is something that we always think, “We need to do more, be more efficient and get more done with fewer resources, time, money and everything to pack more in,” but that doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things. I was thinking about that only in a career sense but now I’m thinking about it more holistically within my life to say, “It makes every choice more meaningful because you are foregoing these other things.” That is difficult. Making those decisions can be very hard. It imbues the result with much more meaning but also not to get hung up on it too much.

I’ve got two quick things. One is related to what you said. I’ve talked about anxiety before on the show. That’s not a surprise and my efforts to try to tame it and find a little more peace. One of the things that I have been doing is asking this question, “When I look back on my life, will I care about this thing that I’m anxious about? Will it matter?” Most of the time, the answer is not just no but absolutely not. “I will not give a crap about this when I look back on my life.” It’s a nice way to reframe something that seems so important at the moment that needs to be dealt with, coped with, fixed and managed.

That’s a good reason why people should not make important decisions in the midst of intense emotions. If you can avoid it and somebody is not going to die right that minute if you don’t do something, wait.

I have a prescription that might help people get started. It has to do with getting more weeks out of your life. You had this number 4,000. Some of us are going to have less and some of us are going to have more. My dad had many fewer, for example. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and have a few extra there. One of the things that does determine the number of weeks is our health. I like to ask this question of people and of myself oftentimes, “Are you making your health a priority? Is your health number one?” The answer to that is oftentimes no. People will sacrifice their health because they have these other priorities.

There are moments in time when I get it right. You’re a new parent. You’re going to give up on your sleep. There are times when you have a deadline and you might have to forego working out for a bit as a temporary thing but as a chronic practice, this is often a mistake. One of the ways that I do this and that, because you do, is I set boundaries. No matter what, I am going to bed at this time. It doesn’t matter if the task isn’t finished too badly and I’m going to get up at this time. No matter what, I’m going to find whatever time to move, eat healthy or whatever it is.

Everything else can work around those times in a sense. I find that is a good starting point because you are nourishing yourself with better sleep, food, movement and so on. It is a good practice. I have much less time than I used to because I used to cheat on sleep a little bit. I’d lose 1 or 2 hours of sleep. It gets you to prioritize those other things within that more limited time. You can have finitude within your day as a result of having strong boundaries around you. For other people, the health stuff might not be a challenge. It might be something else but I’m using that as an example.

In addition to physical health, there’s mental and emotional health as well. Over time, it’s probably the greatest benefit for me of choosing to live solo. I have house meets but they’re housemates. I don’t live with close, intimate partners or even close friends and relatives. That’s because when I live with people to whom I have significant emotional involvement and attachment, it is hard to separate my emotions from theirs.

I need my space to feel my feelings and to be able to be in my home and not worry about how my emotional state will impact other people or not let other people’s emotional state overwhelm me. People say, “You’re an empath.” “I don’t know. I’m from Jersey. I don’t think it’s legal there. I notice though that I am more in touch with my emotions and my life is better for it because I have a safe space that I manage and I am mostly in control of where I can feel my feelings. That has so many impacts on the rest of my life. A lot of times people undervalue mental and emotional health.

Laura, do you have a boundary that you’re contemplating as a result of this?

I’m historically pretty good with boundaries but working in some unstructured time into my day and some not into my day even. That’s a little too ambitious for me. I’m starting from where I am and saying during the week to have some unstructured time.

That would be a spreadsheet column without a label.

I’m going to need to put unstructured time on my calendar or else it won’t happen. I’m going to have to structure this unstructured time. I love to do things and I am very social. Making plans brings me joy. Most of my time is structured. I have a corporate job. I’m working, like many Americans, way too many hours a week. To have a block of time where I can follow my whimsy at that moment is valuable and not something I have put a lot of value on or made time for it in the past. It has helped me to figure out a few things that I’m going to learn to be okay with not doing so that I can have a little more unstructured time, whether that’s alone or with other people. It could go either way. That’s something I’m excited to explore more of.

It’s another successful solo book club.

If we do this again, you know my top nomination for the next one.

I need the author to blow me off for that to happen.

Tell her to read this episode and she’ll probably want to be on it herself. She’s a good interview.

This is Sad Love. Thank you, Laura.

It is always a pleasure.

Thank you, Amy.

You’re welcome.

I am glad that you spent a fraction of your 4,000 weeks with me here.

I enjoy these discussions. It was a lot of fun. I’m not supposed to think about how much better I’m going to be as a result of it. I’m enjoying it.



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About Amy Gahran

SOLO 167 | Minimizing MarriageAmy Gahran is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s currently working on a second edition of her 2017 book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator” — a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity.


About Laura Grant

SOLO 167 | Minimizing MarriageLaura Grant is a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorist who enjoys first dates, job interviews, and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures she finds great meaning investing in her relationships with herself and others.